5 ways for women to protect their heart health

Story highlights

  • Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of Americans
  • Heart disease can be prevented with diet, exercise, sleep and stress-reduction
  • Smoking is one of the leading causes of heart disease in young people

(CNN)The chances you'll die from heart disease are good -- too good.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for Americans. It's especially of concern for women, because their symptoms can be different from men's, according to the American Heart Association.

    For the first time, the American Heart Association released on Monday a statement specifically looking at the known science of women's heart attacks.

    Heart disease in this country remains "understudied, underdiagnosed and undertreated in women" according to the American Heart Association's latest scientific statement. Women of color are particularly vulnerable.

    The good news is, there is a lot you can do to avoid becoming a sad statistic. Here are five simple things you can do to take better care of your ticker.

    Get some zzz's

    Most people need seven to eight hours a night to be well-rested.

    Sleep is not just downtime. It's when your brain forms new pathways to help your memory. It's when your heart and vascular system get a break, as your blood pressure and heart rate slow down. If you don't sleep enough, your body constantly produces adrenaline and stress hormones to keep you awake. That means your blood pressure and heart rate doesn't slow down as well, and that hurts your heart.

    Your sleeping body also produces cytokines, which helps your immune system fight infections and chronic inflammation. Studies show poor sleep -- anything less than six hours -- hurts women more than it does men.

    Poor sleep can also exacerbate depression symptoms and depression increases your risk of heart attacks.

    Get active (yes, including sex!)

    Any kind of exercise is essential for your heart, including sex, studies show.

    "My guess is the 'get more sex (suggestion)' was published by a man," Dr. Deidre Mattina joked. But the Henry Ford Health System cardiologist admitted she has "written on my prescription pad that a patient should have more chocolate, sex and coffee." All of those, in moderation, are good for stress relief, she said.

    Mattina recommends you get at least 30 minutes a day of moderate-intensity exercise of any kind. Something as simple as walking does count

    "As long as when I call you on the cell phone I can tell by your breathing that you are exercising," Mattina said. "You can't just be on a stroll window shopping."

    Exercise lowers your blood pressure, helps you lose weight, increase your good cholesterol, reduces your bad cholesterol and increases your insulin sensitivity.

    Less than half of all adults meet the minimum standard for exercise recommended by the government, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's just 2½ hours a week of moderate aerobic exercise like walking or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise like jogging.

    Being overweight is hard on your heart. To lose weight, aim for 60 to 90 minutes of exercise a day, according to Dr. Carol Ma, a cardiologist at Florida Hospital in Orlando.

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    "I tell my patients you should have a BMI that's less than 25 and a waist that measures less than 35. That's pretty specific, but that's what you need for a healthy heart," Ma said.

    Raise a glass -- and maybe a carrot -- to your heart

    A drink a day can keep the heart doctor away. If you drink (don't start for a healthier heart), Mattina suggests one alcoholic beverage is enough (for the guys it's two). Any more can stress your heart.

    A drink, by the way, is not an extra-large tumbler. It's 12 ounces of beer, 4 ounces of wine, 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits or 1 ounce of 100-proof spirits.

    This is not just limited to red wine, which does have heart-healthy antioxidants. Any alcoholic drink can increase levels of "good" cholesterol and limit artery damage. Alcohol can also help you relax.

    Eating healthy is also essential; watch refined sugar, salt and fat and eat lots of fruits and vegetables (in the 4.5 cup range).

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    Keep a close eye on salt. Most Americans eat too much and over 75% of it comes from packaged foods or from eating out.

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    Ma also tells her patients to eat a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids like what you find in fish.

    If you're looking for suggestions, the new 2015 Dietary Guidelines give ideas for following the Mediterranean diet, which is particularly good for your heart.

    Quit smoking

    "This is No. 1 on my list," Mattina said, and Ma agreed.

    Mattina said when she sees a young patient who has a heart attack, 90% admit to being smokers. It's a little known fact, but most smokers die from heart disease long before they'll get lung cancer.

    Smoking can create blood clots, decreases your levels of good cholesterol, makes it harder to exercise and can raise your blood pressure temporarily, none of which is good for your heart.

    Don't let your doctor be lonely

    Get screened for heart disease. Regular screening can catch risks early and prevent future problems

    The tests you need depend on your age, how much you exercise, your diet and family history (if your parents or siblings have heart problems, you're at risk).

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    The American Heart Association suggests everyone start monitoring their heart health by age 20. Your doctor should check your blood pressure, your weight and your cholesterol and triglyceride levels. You may want a more comprehensive check, which typically looks at your BMI, your waist circumference, the electrical activity in your heart and you'll undergo a carotid intima-media thickness test. Essentially, the two major arteries in your neck are screened for signs of hardening (an early sign of disease). A carotid and peripheral arterial disease screening looks for blockages in your legs, neck and arms. Your blood sugar is measured and your lipid profiles are tested, too.

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    High blood pressure greatly increases your chance of having heart problems. If your blood pressure is above 120/80mm, you may want more regular checks. Blood pressure can be controlled through medication or a better diet and exercise.

    Starting at age 45, get your blood glucose levels checked. High blood glucose levels -- a sign of Type 2 diabetes -- can lead to heart disease and stroke.

    "We do a lot of sick care in medicine these days," Mattina said. "I think we need to be more aggressive and look for potential problems before they happen because what we generally have now isn't enough."

    For women, it's especially important to know the signs of heart trouble, as they can be different from men's.

    Classic chest pain is common with women as it is with men, but not all women feel it. Women may have a sensation in their neck or jaw, feel palpitations, weakness, fatigue, a sense of dread -- or classic symptoms that can be confused with gastrointestinal disease including vomiting, nausea and indigestion.

    If you've got any of these concerns, get checked right away, a delay in treatment significantly reduces your chances of survival.